Carolyn Hax: Mom’s a realistic but is called ‘Debbie Downer’

Carolyn Hax
Columnist February 24, 2012

Dear Carolyn:

From “You’re not getting a puppy” to first loves, how does a parent teach a child to deal with bitter tears and heartbreaking disappointment? I was taught not to get your hopes up. Is that a downer or just being a realist?

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

As a mom of four, I have been accused of “sucking the joy out of everything” and my response is always that I am just trying to help them temper the disappointments that they suffer and that I am faced with having to deal with afterward. Got any suggestions?

Mom a.k.a. Debbie Downer

For starters, you teach them to deal with tears and disappointment. By tamping down their hopes, you’re trying to prevent tears and disappointment, which is a different effort entirely.


If your kids’ hopes are unrealistic, then they’re going to find that out when the things they hoped for don’t happen; life plays the realist role brilliantly, without your help. Christmas alone schools millions of kids in the hazards of hype.

Broken hearts hurt, yes, and a brokenhearted kid means a parent with extra work to do. But a preemptive visit from Debbie Downer doesn’t make things hurt any less, or make the mop-up easier; that’s what your kids are trying to tell you. Plus: Getting rejected is going to hurt no matter what, but when Mom feels compelled to notify you that you’re probably going to get rejected, that’s an additional kick to the confidence.

And how would Mom know, anyway? You say you were “taught not to get your hopes up,” but unless your elders were omniscient, you were taught to expect bad news that no one was in a position to predict. Sometimes people do get the date, get the role, get the job, get the medal.

You want your kids to manage emotional risk, not be cowed by or oblivious to it. Teaching risk-management is a childhood-long process, and a parent’s role in it is largely positive.

For the “no puppy”-type heartbreak, it’s also straightforward. As long as you have integrity and consistency in saying “yes” and “no” to things — i.e., if it’s really about dogs and not about punishment or pandering — then kids manage. Say yes to what you’re able and willing to provide, no to the rest, and no ulterior motives.

When it’s not about having, but instead about doing/being/achieving something, that’s a different heartbreak; a soul rejected is more complicated than a request denied.

But it still doesn’t involve parentally deflated expectations. Instead of telling kids what they probably won’t do — go to the Olympics, the moon, Hollywood, the altar — teach them what they can do: practice hard, study hard, rehearse daily, treat loved ones well, pursue happiness.

Even better, notice and praise their hard work and its (guaranteed) rewards.

And, be the safe place they can land when the coaches/teachers/employers/directors/sweethearts of the world stick a pin in their hopes, because some always do (no told-you-so’s; you can’t always predict which ones). Be the one who gives your kids a hug, says you’re sorry and invites them to do the only second-guessing that matters: “Did you give it your best?”

If instead you try downsizing their expectations for them, you interfere with the natural feedback cycle of effort, results, expectations. That hurts them more than it helps.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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